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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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Strong public policy and market transformations: The one-two punch for toxics reform

Posted on May 17, 2012

By Bobbi Chase Wilding, MS

This essay is in response to the question: Which Way Forward for Toxics Advocacy?

The environmental health and justice movement was born from rampant pollution during production and disposal - think smokestacks, direct discharge to waterways, and Superfund toxic waste sites.  While some attention was given to toxic chemicals in products, like lead in paint and gasoline, attention focused primarily on environmental releases.  We have come a long way since then.  No longer focused on end-of-pipe controls, there is increased pressure to remove toxic chemicals from the supply chain entirely – from drilling for oil to chemical synthesis to product formulation. 

We understand now that toxic chemicals are widely used in common products, and thus everyone has toxic chemicals in their bodies.  Synthetic chemicals play a role in how your brain works, how easy or difficult it is for you to have children, whether you get cancer, diabetes, heart disease or a myriad of other illnesses.  This is why people from many perspectives – scientists, the President's Cancer Panel, doctors, teachers, nurses, child care providers, parents, breast cancer advocates, environmental health and justice advocates – are all working to get toxic chemicals out of our daily lives.

It would be so easy if we could just turn to the public and say, if you only buy X, Y and Z, you'll protect yourselves and save the world. Sadly, it just isn't possible to shop our way out of this toxic trap that has been so neatly set for us by the deeply-entrenched companies that profit from the production of synthetic chemicals.

What we need in the coming years is the one-two punch of strong public policy and market transformations.

At the federal public policy level, the Safe Chemicals Act proposes to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). This is the law that set up our chemicals management system in the U.S., back in 1976. It kicked things off by “grandfathering in” 62,000 chemicals already in the marketplace. No new data was required for these chemicals. Today, there are over 80,000 chemicals in commerce, and the US EPA has adequate environmental and health impact data for only about 200. That’s less than 1%. Only five chemicals have been banned by EPA since then, and none since 1990. Essentially, chemicals are treated as though they're going through our criminal justice system: innocent until proven guilty. And EPA doesn't have enough evidence to bring charges on many.  The Safe Chemicals Act seeks to reverse the burden of proof, taking the general public out of the role of guinea pig and requiring chemical makers to demonstrate their chemicals are safe before they get used. It seeks to remove the worst, well-known toxic chemicals first and to create a process to get real information on the vast majority of chemicals. We need this federal policy reform.

Once TSCA reform is enacted, it will be vital for the vast community of people working for chemical policy reform to be engaged in implementation – for as they say, the devil will be in the details. We know that the chemical industry will not only fight passage of TSCA reform every step of the way; similarly, once regulations are being drafted, they will work doggedly to water them down and make them as ineffective as possible. There is a lot of money behind maintaining the status quo.

Federal reform has been and will continue to be spurred on by state actions. In 2012, 28 states considered bills to address toxic chemicals. These actions range from restricting the use in certain products of single chemicals like cadmium, bisphenol A (BPA), and Tris, to creation of a framework that addresses toxic chemicals in children's products more broadly. States can serve as the laboratory for certain aspects of federal reform, and they can act more quickly. And while the federal debate rages, more states will pass similar legislation, resulting in de-facto national bans on specific chemicals in specific product sectors.  Work at the state level is a vital piece of the policy advocacy to change our framework for thinking about and regulating chemicals. It also faces opposition from the deep-pocketed chemical industry.

The other part of the equation is market transformations. But wait, you say. Isn't the chemical industry opposed to these changes? The old guard is, it's true. But the marketplace is made up of many more players than just those who make chemicals. The vast majority of companies are “down-stream users” who are more vulnerable to public demands, and who are less tied to a particular chemical than to producing products that meet specific performance criteria. In addition, new companies have emerged to address public desire for safer chemicals, and they are using home-grown vegetable feedstocks to make greener chemicals.

Market campaigns will need to focus on lagging companies and apply outside pressure to win commitments to reform.   (A recent successful campaign is the effort that led to Campbell's Soup announcing that they will stop using BPA in their can linings, after coming under intense public pressure to do so). Market campaigns will also need to focus on leading companies and building a new, safer supply chain. Investors are asking companies to disclose ingredients and switch to safer alternatives. Groups like the American Sustainable Business Council are stepping forward to advocate for policy changes because they level the playing field and make it easier for “greener” companies to enter the marketplace.

Each of these strategies helps advance and lock in the progress won by the others. For example, companies that provide safer alternatives demonstrate the “doability” of moving away from certain chemicals. States can then pass laws that require lagging companies to catch up. These policy wins drive chemical companies to the table for federal negotiations. New policies make it more possible for green companies to start and succeed.

Taken together, market and policy advances have the potential to reap significant rewards for environmental health in the next few years.


William Moscowitz said ..

The Safe Chemicals Act ...where is it in federal? Senate, congress or other?

May 22, 2012
Anonymous said ..

The Department of Education needs to be held accountable for agreeing to expose so many students to asbestos and lead/pb. The student loan program begins with an environmentally safe educational arena, not exposure to lead and asbestos and many other toxins. I believe that any person who attended college and was exposed has zero need to repay their student loans whether they got cancer or not...

May 22, 2012
Donna Yancey said ..

Thank you Bobbi for continuing to do the work you do! I was at a workshop with you several years ago and so impressed by your commitment and all who were there. I have mainly retired, but am trying to follow this issue on internet, thru PSR and Washington Toxics Coalition! Such important work!

May 21, 2012
Gini Paulsen, PhD said ..

The most effective approach, IMO, is to educate consumers about the products they use in their homes and gardens, providing information on both the toxic products they may use, and the alternatives that are available. Changing consumer use and purchasing patterns is far easier, and ultimately more effective than changing corporations and the government.

May 21, 2012
Marceline Gearry said ..

Article so long I didnot have time to finish.

May 21, 2012

Comments closed.